Grenfell Tower Fire: Infrastructure Disasters as Portends for Major Ideological Shifts, or, Why Neoliberalism is Finished

The slow demise of social democracy was marked by a series of tragic infrastructure disasters that seemed to make clear the insufficiency of the postwar consensus. As Margaret Thatcher sought to privatize Britain and tear down the welfare state she was helped along by a series of highly public disasters. These included the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985, in which 56 were killed, the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, where 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a human crush, and the King’s Cross fire in 1987, which resulted in 31 deaths. The United States did not have tragedies on a corresponding scale, but there the decline of social democracy was accompanied by disasters such as the collapse of an eighty foot section of the West Side Highway in New York City in 1973. These disasters were all the consequence of severe under-investment in infrastructure and were made acute by the manufactured budget crises that enabled the success of the anti-social democratic agenda.

In the late-1970s London appeared dilapidated and crumbling. Neoliberalism responded in the way it responds to everything. Public assets and services were privatized and banking regulations were loosened. It was under Thatcher that the idea of the Public Private Partnership really began to be developed, though her primary actions were to sell off as much as the state as possible. Such privatizations have been a constant of the last thirty years as underfunded governments sell their assets to private investors in return for capital in the present. This comes at the cost of long-term income for the government in question while the services themselves become both more expensive and of lower quality. However, when the first round of privatizations were taking place, financial centers such as London or New York City were flooded with capital. London became a city of bankers and lawyers and the city took on the appearance of wealth and success. It has become considerably shinier as rentier landlords have sought to turn the entire city into luxury housing for money launderers. The entire city has been given an attractive highly flammable façade, chosen because it saved £5000 over the fire resistant alternative.

Thus, the Grenfell Tower fire points to two structural failures of neoliberalism. The first is that neoliberalism is a rentier economy that works entirely by extracting an ever greater share of the wealth from the bottom and transferring it upwards. It is inherently destructive in the long-term because it is incapable of creation. All that neoliberalism can do is squeeze greater rents out of what was already there to begin with while actively destroying all sources of production. Thus, Britain has become nearly fully deindustrialized since the 1980s and is now reliant entirely on the banking industry (which make most of their profits laundering money for druglords and dictators and other criminal behaviour) and the property market in London (which also profits heavily from money laundering). Meanwhile, most of the population has been reduced to poorly paid service jobs while basic life goals become ever more unattainable and even just daily survival more difficult.

This points toward the second failure of neoliberalism. Because it cannot create wealth, the neoliberal economy cannot survive in the long-term. In order to continue to extract rents, the capitalist class is forced to continue to drive up property values (such as through loose banking regulations that allowed the sub-prime loans that created the US housing bubble that collapsed to cause the 2008 financial crisis) and to constantly seek ways of reducing costs. The need for lower costs escalates moves toward off-shore manufacturing, automation, efforts to push down wages and, most significantly, the widespread tax avoidance carried out by corporations and the capitalist classes. Thus, the constant since 2010 has been austerity as necessary services have been horrifically and criminally defunded while multibillionaires and politicians alike hide their money in tax shelters.

Infrastructure crises are portends to major ideological shifts because they make it impossible to hide how the status quo has failed. The cruelty and inhumanity of neoliberalism has been laid bare by entirely avoidable disasters such as at Grenfell Tower or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In the UK it has been recognized by many over the last several years that the status quo had failed Britain, but there was no real alternative. Thanks to Blairism, Labour Party offered little different than what the Tories did. Worse, it had been Labour who had led Britain into the financial crises that resulted in the present austerity in the first place. The only groups presenting an anti-austerity argument were the nationalists (while the neo-fascist UKIP has received the bulk of the attention, not all nationalist parties are far right as demonstrated by the center-left SNP). The lack of a viable, credible left has allowed neoliberalism to continue in its increasingly violent death throes for the last decade. As of the just completed UK election, this is no longer the case. The mantra of Margaret Thatcher was that “there is no alternative,” Jeremy Corbyn has provided an alternative. In the immediate wake of the Grenfell Fire, the anger has been rightly directed toward the authors of austerity and the ideology that caused it.

Margaret Thatcher was wrong. There is an alternative. The death of neoliberalism has been evident since at least 2008 for anyone with a brain who has been paying attention (so not David Frum), but until recently there was a very real possibility that it was going to be the far right who would benefit. It was far right movements led by elites disguised as populists who were the only ones really offering a different vision of the future than the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life of man described by Thomas Hobbes. These movements were led by frauds like Donald Trump, Nigel Farrage, Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen, but at least they weren’t telling people whose lives have been crushed by de-industrialization and the collapse of coal mining that actually things are already great. The shift to the far right was a move of desperation, but fascism has always appealed to a small, but significant, part of the population in times of economic deprivation. Moreover, fascism is amenable to the capitalists because it does not challenge their economic power or threaten their ill-gotten wealth. Until last week it appeared as though neoliberalism would collapse into fascism or some sort of Mad Max dystopia. Whatever allows the rich to cling to their gold is acceptable to them no matter how many die as a result.

Fortunately, for the first time the leader of a mainstream, leading political party has been willing to make a clear, left-wing case against neoliberalism and to present a positive, socialist vision of the future. The right-wing establishment threw everything they had at Corbyn to little avail. Though idiot centrists have taken up desperate rearguard action in defense of the status quo and desperately point to Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau as signs that neoliberalism is not dead, but it is too late for them. The cruel failures of neoliberalism are too transparently obvious to fool the masses any longer.